Baseball has long been the province of unusual names and nicknames, especially among players of an earlier era. When you hear the names “Splendid Splinter”, “The Man”, “The Say Hey Kid”, “The Bambino”, and “Oil Can”, you know exactly who they are. Nicknames are a funny thing. When I was a kid, I had a mop of long, unruly hair and that earned me the nickname “dog”. I didn’t particularly like it, but it sort of stuck.
When I was in college, some guys in the dorm started calling me “The General”. I went back to my regular name until I met my friend Sam DeVilder who christened me “Bigcat”. Now some nicknames are made in a mean-spirited way, but with Sammy D, not so. His abundant enthusiasm made sure you knew that this was a sign of respect and admiration. So here we are 30 years later, and Sam still calls me the Bigcat. Somedays it’s “Bigcatdaddy”, which has a nice ring to it. The original Bigcat was Ernie Ladd, who was a standout defensive end, primarily for the San Diego Chargers and in later years, the Kansas City Chiefs. Ladd was indeed a big cat, at 6’9 and 290 pounds. He played in an era when a lot of offensive linemen went in the 250 lb. range. After football BigCat Ladd moved onto professional wrestling and was later inducted into the WWF Hall of Fame.
When it comes to baseball nicknames, the Negro Leagues won the day. Everyone knows of Leroy “Satchel” Paige, Charles “Bullet” Rogan, and Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe. Buck O’Neil was tagged with “Nancy” by Paige in one of the funnier baseball stories I’ve ever read. If you’re unfamiliar with the origin, read any one of Joe Posnanski’s many tales of how the name came about.
Here are a few of the great Negro League nicknames and the players behind the name.
Oscar “Heavy” Johnson – A premier power hitter in the 1920’s, Johnson, who checked in around 250 pounds, was the first man to hit a home run in Municipal Stadium, while playing for the Monarchs. Johnson was born in Atchison, Kansas and in addition to his prodigious home run output, he could also hit, finishing his career with a .337 lifetime average.
Carroll Ray “Dink” Mothell – Another Kansas-born product (Topeka), Mothell gained fame playing for the Monarchs and four other Negro League teams in a 16-year career. No word on how Mothell, who passed away in 1980, received his moniker.
J.W. “Gunboat” Thompson – This is a great nickname. Gunboat just rolls with Thompson, a perfect synchrony of syllables. There’s not much information on Thompson, who was a pitcher. He played for five seasons for the Cuban Giants, the New York Lincoln Stars, the Chicago American Giants, and the Detroit Stars between 1913 and 1920.
Walter Claude “Steel Arm” Dickey – The story of Steel Arm Dickey is one of the more tragic tales in Negro League lore. Walter Dickey, descended from slaves, was born by some accounts in 1896 and others list 1899. He was reputed to have one of the best arms in baseball. Steel Arm gained his nickname by the velocity of his pitches and the sharp break of his curveball. He played in the Negro Southern League and the Negro National League in 1922. Tragically, his life was cut short, the victim of a stabbing at the age of 26 in a dispute over moonshine.
Norman Thomas “Turkey” Stearnes – Norman Stearnes, a native of Nashville, made his Negro League debut at the age of 19 with the Nashville Giants. He came to his nickname at a young age due to his running style, in which he would flap his arms while running. Stearnes was a unique blend of power and speed. He batted over .400 three times and led the Negro Leagues in home runs seven times. When he retired after the 1937 season, he was the Negro Leagues all-time home run leader. The quiet Stearnes, who had three stints with the Kansas City Monarchs, was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000.
James Raleigh “Biz” Mackey – Along with Josh Gibson, Mackey was one of the all-time great Negro League catchers. His career spanned an incredible five decades. He made his debut as a 20-year-old in 1918 with the San Antonio Black Aces and played his final games in 1950 at the age of 53 with the Newark Eagles. Along the way he became the Negro League’s all-time leader in total bases, RBI, and slugging percentage. He tutored many other catchers on the finer points of the craft, including Roy Campanella. His grandson, Riley Odoms, was a standout tight end with the Denver Bronco’s for 12 seasons. Mackey got his nickname, Biz, short for business, which is what the jovial and talkative Mackey gave to opposing batters when they stepped into the box. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.
Arthur Chauncy “Rats” Henderson – Henderson was a smallish (5’7, 180 pound) righthanded side armed pitcher who played for the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants and the Detroit Stars from 1923 to 1931. His best pitch was a curveball and in 1923 he was the highest-paid pitcher in the Negro Leagues. He reportedly got his nickname after someone hid a rat in his lunchbox, the rat making his escape when the young Henderson opened the box. In a player’s poll in the 1950s, Henderson was voted one of the all-time best Negro League pitchers.
Dick “Cannonball” Redding – Anyone with the nickname Cannonball automatically gets a mention on my list. Redding acquired his name by being one of the hardest throwers in baseball history. Redding, a WWI veteran who saw combat in France, reportedly struck out Babe Ruth three times on nine pitches. Cannonball was a big man, standing 6’4 and had excellent control. Records credit him with throwing 30 no-hitters in his career. Ty Cobb refused to take batting practice against Redding. Many Negro League veterans ranked Redding, Smoky Joe Williams and Satchel Paige as the three best Negro League pitchers, in that order.
James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell – One of the all-time greats of the Negro Leagues has in my opinion the coolest nickname. Cool Papa Bell. By all accounts, one of the fastest players to ever step on a diamond. Reports had Bell circling the bases on a soggy Chicago field in 13.1 seconds. Bell claimed that on a dry field he could cover the distance in less than 12. As great as he was on the field, former teammate Ted Page said Bell “was an even better man off the field. He was honest, kind and a clean liver. I’ve never seen him smoke, drink or even cuss”. Bell was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974.
As for more modern nicknames in major league baseball, some of my favorites are:
The Penguin (Ron Cey)
Hoover (Pat Burrell)
Spaceman (Bill Lee)
The Human Rain Delay (Mike Hargrove)
Toy Cannon (Jimmy Wynn)
Biscuit Pants (Lou Gehrig)
Crime Dog (Fred McGriff)
Cool Breeze (Rodney Scott)
A column like this wouldn’t be complete without a nod to some of the more unusual names in baseball history.
1. Johnny Dickshot – An outfielder for three teams over a career that spanned from 1936 to 1945, Dickshot always makes the unusual name list. To make matters worse, his nickname was Ugly.
2. Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar Tuskahoma McLish – Named by his father, who probably never got to name another child, McLish thankfully just went by Cal. He was a decent pitcher for seven teams over a 15-year career. After retirement, McLish coached for the Phillies, Expos and Brewers from 1965 to 1982.
3. Razor Shines – Razor is actually his middle name, Anthony Razor Shines. Shines was a first baseman for the Montreal Expos from 1983 to 1987 and later coached for the Chicago White Sox and the New York Mets. Maxim magazine rated his name as the “most bad-ass of all time”.
4. Wonderful Terrific Monds III – Where do you even begin? As great as this name is, it’s astounding that there are two other Wonderful Monds in the world. Monds never made it to the majors, rising as high as AA ball in a seven-year career as a member of the Braves, Rockies and Reds organizations.
5. Ledell “Cannonball” Titcomb – What’d I say earlier about Cannonball? Automatic inclusion. Add in the Titcomb and you have a surefire winner. A left-handed pitcher, Titcomb compiled a 30-29 record with four teams from 1886 to 1890.
6. Ralph Pierre “Pete” LaCock – I had to include at least one Royal in this list and who better than the genial LaCock? LaCock enjoyed a nine-year career with the Cubs and Royals, including back-to-back years in Kansas City where he hit .303 and .295. LaCock hit one grand slam home run in his career and it came off Bob Gibson in the final game and last inning of Gibson’s career. Fast forward to an old-timer’s game in Kansas City in 1990. Bob Feller is pitching. LaCock comes to the plate. Time is called and Bob Gibson comes into pitch. First pitch, Gibson drills LaCock. All those years and Gibby didn’t forget. I love it.
Besides the catchy name, LaCock’s other claim to fame is his father was longtime Hollywood Squares host Peter Marshall.
7. George Henry “Snuffy” Stirnweiss – Stirnweiss was an excellent infielder, primarily with the New York Yankees over a ten-year career in which he led the American League in hits and runs twice and won a batting title in 1945 and made two All-Star teams. Any player who uses the nickname Snuffy also gets automatic inclusion on my lists. Stirnweiss, who accumulated over 27 WAR in his career, perished in 1958 at the young age of 39 when a train he was riding in plunged into Newark Bay, killing 48 passengers.
8. Rusty Kuntz - No baseball piece on names would be complete without Kansas City’s favorite coach, Rusty Kuntz. Royals fans love them some Rusty. Kuntz primarily grew up in Paso Robles, California, but did spend some time in Wichita. The White Sox drafted him in the 11th round of the 1977 draft and he made his debut with them in 1979. Kuntz had a seven year career with the White Sox, Twins and Tigers. A career batting average of .236 eventually did him in and he moved into coaching, joining the Royals in 2007, where he has become something of a cult figure with fans and one of the most respected coaches in major league baseball.
9. Van Lingle Mungo – we’ll close out this story with one of my father’s favorite players: Van Lingle Mungo. Mungo had an outstanding career from 1931 to 1945, primarily with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He ended with a career mark of 120-115 and made four National League All-Star teams. When my father would tell me stories about this guy, I was certain he had to be pulling my leg, making up a name of a fictitious pitcher, something like Sidd Finch. Turns out that Mungo was quite the character, having racked up more fines that any player of his era and once having to be smuggled out of Cuba after being caught in flagrante delicto with a married woman.